An autonomous drone for search and rescue in forests using airborne optical sectioning
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Autonomous drones will play an essential role in human-machine teaming in future search and rescue (SAR) missions. We present a prototype that finds people fully autonomously in densely occluded forests. In the course of 17 field experiments conducted over various forest types and under different flying conditions, our drone found, in total, 38 of 42 hidden persons. For experiments with predefined flight paths, the average precision was 86%, and we found 30 of 34 cases. For adaptive sampling experiments (where potential findings are double-checked on the basis of initial classification confidences), all eight hidden persons were found, leading to an average precision of 100%, whereas classification confidence was increased on average by 15%. Thermal image processing, classification, and dynamic flight path adaptation are computed on-board in real time and while flying. We show that deep learning?based person classification is unaffected by sparse and error-prone sampling within straight flight path segments. This finding allows search missions to be substantially shortened and reduces the image complexity to 1/10th when compared with previous approaches. The goal of our adaptive online sampling technique is to find people as reliably and quickly as possible, which is essential in time-critical applications, such as SAR. Our drone enables SAR operations in remote areas without stable network coverage, because it transmits to the rescue team only classification results that indicate detections and can thus operate with intermittent minimal-bandwidth connections (e.g., by satellite). Once received, these results can be visually enhanced for interpretation on remote mobile devices.